Wine 201: Acquiring a Taste for Wine
When you ask most wine lovers what was the first wine they ever tasted and enjoyed I’ll lay odds it was one of three products – Mateus Rosé, Manischewitz or Blue Nun.
They are all very different in style; the first is a sparkling pink wine from Portugal, the second is a kosher red wine from New York State usually served with the Passover meal, and the third, a Müller-Thurgau and Riesling blend from Germany. Three different colours but what they share in common is residual sweetness.
As a culture we are used to sweet drinks like the carbonated pop we drank as kids; so it’s only natural that a transitional drink from Coke & Pepsi to wine would be a product with some residual sweetness. As we learn more about wine our palates ‘dry out’ and we begin to appreciate wines that are crisper and more refreshing.
Those pops we consumed in our teenage years came straight out of the fridge or were poured over ice cubes; so our first requisite for wine as a novice would be for something chilled. What chilling does to a wine is to dial down the perception of sweetness and emphasise the acidity, the freshness. Acid is what gives structure and length in the mouth to wine; think of acid as the skeleton of the wine and the fruit as the flesh. Without a strong spine to support the fruit the wine will taste flabby. And if the wine is all fruit and lacking acidity you might as well drink grape juice.
Acidity is what prolongs flavour and it also has other benefits. The total acidity in wine is a measure called pH. The pH of most wines is about the same as the pH of our stomach acid which means that wine consumed at a meal aids our digestion process. Most table wines have a pH of between 2.9 and 3.9; the lower the pH the more acidic and drier tasting the wine. Lemon juice, or to give it its fancy chemical name 2-hydroxypropane-1,2,3-tricarboxylic acid, has a pH of 2. Diet Coke has a pH of 3.9.
And what are the chillable wines? Sparkling wines, white wines (dry, off-dry and sweet dessert wines like Icewine) and also some red wines. Yes, not all red wines need to be served at room temperature. Some light and fruity wines like Beaujolais and Valpolicella are best served lightly chilled.
So, at the start of your journey into the wonderful world of wine you might enjoy Moscato d’Asti from Piedmont in Italy, a low-alcohol wine that smells of honey and orange blossom with a light petillance on the tongue, or the more sparkling version of the same grape, Asti Spumante. In fact, the Muscat grape would be an interesting variety to explore from its ultra-sweet version Samos Muscat from Greece and Beaumes-de-Venise from France’s Rhône Valley to the dry version of Muscat they make in Alsace or a sister grape from Argentina called Torrontes.
We all have unique palates that appreciate different tastes; and the best way to discover what appeals to your palate is to taste wines comparatively, one against another. Wine is the most sociable of beverages so you can do the following exercise with a group of friends. Throw a blind wine-tasting party. Invite a manageable number of guests to pick up a bottle of one of their favourite wines. So that there are no duplicates, tell each guest they have a specific colour to bring to the party and a named country or region to be represented. Leave the bottles in their brown paper bags with elastic bands around the necks so the labels are totally concealed and cut off the capsules so there’s no visible clue as to the provenance of the wine. Number the bags and put them in an order based on colour (sparkling first, white, then rosé followed by red). Put the reds in ascending order of alcohol, highest last. You’ll find the percentage of alcohol somewhere on the front or back label.
Provide pencil and paper and a spittoon for each participant (a red plastic beer cup is perfect) and let them smell, taste and spit the wines and then rank their preferences. Don’t tell your guests the prices of the wines until everyone has rated them. Tasting blind dispels all prejudices and preconceptions. You’ll be amazed by the results and it will help you to zero in on your taste preferences. And it makes for a great party!